Conservative Diary


17 Apr 2013 07:53:32

A Government website has won a design award?! It’s true and, what’s more, it’s deserved

By Peter Hoskin
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_MG_3243[3]Mike Bracken, Nick Hurd MP, Ben Terrett and Rohan Silva with's award.

If I told you a Government IT project had won an award, you might be surprised. If I then added that the award was a design award, your surprise might turn into shock. And then if it was for Design of the Year as chosen by London’s Design Museum… what the Hell?!

But that’s exactly what happened last night, when the website – which collects information that was previously spread across numerous other websites – beat off competition from the Shard, Louis Vuitton and others to land the Design Museum’s top award. And much deserved it was, too.

Why so? Well, in truth, the website isn’t exactly a paragon of beauty. As designed by Ben Terrett (pictured above) from inside the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service, it’s more about clarity and functionality – and that’s precisely the point. The idea is that ‘most anyone should be able to use the site, from someone starting up their first business to a granny checking up on her pension. As anyone who’s struggled against Government websites in the past will know, that idea, and its execution, was precisely what was needed.

And it delivers benefits for the Government, as well. By making it easier to write and administer to things such as passport applications, is expected to save taxpayers around £50 million a year. Not much, perhaps, against a deficit of £120 billion – but it’s only a start, with more to come. Last year’s Digital Efficiency Report suggested that the “greater digitisation of transactions” could save around £1.8 billion a year.

This clever use of IT was always one of this Government’s most promising ideas. Indeed, in an article for The Spectator in 2010, Neil O’Brien (now an adviser to George Osborne) and I suggested that – in the guise of the “Post-bureaucratic Age” – it could even count as David Cameron’s Big Idea. What’s happened since then is that Mr Cameron has spoken about it less and less, but the Cabinet Office, supported by folk such as Rohan Silva (also pictured above), has kept on working at it, programming code while the rest of Whitehall sleeps. And it’s got to the point where the PBA, as a public concept, has rather come back to life. There was last night’s award, of course, but ministers such as Jeremy Hunt are also eager to deliver reform by keyboard and mouse.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: itself isn’t yet complete, and there are still dark question marks over the Government’s ability to deliver bigger, trickier computer systems (here’s looking at you, Universal Credit). But at least progress is being made. Whatever happens at the next election, future governments will have a better operating system installed thanks to the efforts of this one.

26 Mar 2013 15:11:25

Theresa May splits up the UK Border Agency

By Peter Hoskin
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Forget what your calendars say, this has been the month of May. It began with Theresa May’s department boasting that net migration has fallen by a third. It continued with her speech to ConservativeHome’s Victory 2015 conference. And now, today, it sees her make an important announcement in the Commons. The dysfunctional UK Border Agency is effectively going to be abolished, and two new organisations will take its place. One will deal with immigration and visas. The other will deal with law enforcement.

The timing of this announcement is rather opportune: only yesterday, the Home Affairs select committee released a report that was damning about UKBA’s performance – particularly in building up a backlog of cases that could take up to 24 years to clear – and about Lin Homer, its former boss. But that’s just a coincidence. In her statement and the discussion that followed, Theresa May emphasised that this decision had been taken over many months, and because of longstanding concerns. How longstanding? “In truth, the Agency was not set up to absorb the level of mass immigration that we saw under the last government,” she said. 

Yvette Cooper half-welcomed Theresa May’s announcement and half-attacked it. Her point was that May herself should take some of the blame for the UKBA’s failings, thanks to the 30 per cent cuts, etc, etc. But here's the thing: May will take more of the blame – or praise, as the case may be – under the new system. The new organisations aren’t being set up as agencies but will report directly to Home Office ministers, and that’s before we get onto the work the department will now undertake to “modernise IT across the whole immigration system”. In future, the chain of accountability will stop at the Home Secretary.

15 Nov 2012 08:17:13

Is Michael Gove in the vanguard of another revolution?

By Peter Hoskin
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Gosh, Michael Gove likes shaking things up. First it was the schools system, now it’s the Department for Education itself. Yesterday’s newspapers reported that 1,000 of the department’s civil servants are to lose their jobs over the next few years, as part of a Govian drive to cut administrative costs in half by 2016. This is thanks to a “zero-based” review of the DfE’s functions — published here — which suggested that there was more spare capacity to be trimmed all-round.

Before we get carried away, however, it’s worth noting that some of this work has already been done. Mr Gove had previously committed to cutting his department’s administrative costs by 42 per cent, in real terms, between the financial years of 2010/11 and 2014/15. And, as part of that process, he’s already cut those costs by over a quarter — 26 per cent — to date. Now that he’s aiming for 50 per cent by 2015/16, it means that there’s another 24 per cent to come.

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13 Nov 2012 15:33:16

The Post-Bureaucratic Age comes back to life

By Peter Hoskin
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Forget the huskies — computers were a considerably more important part of the early Cameron leadership. The man himself could barely stop talking about them, about the Internet, about data and technology. And much of this fell under the banner of the Post-Bureaucratic Age, the idea that ordinary citizens, armed with little more than keyboards and information, could take greater control over the services they receive. It was all part of the Google zeitgeist.

Sadly, some of this fell away with the birth of the Coalition. The very phrase “the Post-Bureaucratic Age” was subsumed underneath the bigger umbrella term, “the Big Society”. And Mr Cameron stopped enthusing about computers so much, as he turned to the austere business of deficit reduction. It wasn’t so much that his Government had turned away from post-bureaucracy: it hadn’t, as its continuing efforts to free-up government data amply demonstrate. It's more that was talked about less.

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5 Oct 2012 08:33:23

Where now for civil service reform?

By Peter Hoskin
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It’s been quite a week on Whitehall. Not only was there — as Tim highlighted yesterday — the whole West Coast Mainline debacle, which resulted in the suspension of three civil servants. But there was also Francis Maude’s speech on Tuesday, which emphasised that senior civil servants had, on occasion, “blocked agreed government policy from going ahead”.

I’ve written about the aftermath of both for today’s Times (£): a sort of politics-focused post-script to the article I wrote for them last year (£) on the policy of civil service reform. Here, for those who cannot climb beyond the paywall, are five of its points in digestible form. I apologise for yet another five-point summary, it’s just how my brain is wired:

1) The anger. Behind this week’s brouhaha is a fair amount of pre-existing resentment between ministers and the civil service. Here’s how I begin my article:

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2 Oct 2012 08:23:23

Another escalation in the battle against Whitehall’s permanent government

By Peter Hoskin
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Outside of Manchester, the most significant political speech of the day is being delivered by Francis Maude to the Institute for Government. Indeed, it could actually be more significant than “the most personal speech ever given by a British political leader,” too. For Mr Maude’s subject is the structural relationship between government and the civil service, and how it should be altered. His words will mark an escalation in the struggle against Whitehall.

And, judging by this report in the Financial Times, what an escalation it will be. Mr Maude is set to claim that senior civil servants have blocked government policy or advised other officials not to implement it. And while that will be no surprise to Whitehall watchers, and while Mr Maude will describe these cases as “exceptional”, it still amounts to an accusation that some civil servants don’t just fail to do their job, but succeed in the doing the opposite of it. It’s another sign of what I’ve written about before: Mr Maude’s growing impatience and determination on civil service reform.

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27 Sep 2012 11:05:17

The Coalition is not doing enough to end the equalities industry - tackling it would be a social and economic good

By Matthew Barrett
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Amidst all the talk of "going for growth", Lib Dem "hate taxes on the rich", and difficult decisions for Ministers having to reduce their budgets, there is one large, flabby area of government which has been insufficiently tackled, but which could be cut down to size easily, popularly, and with huge benefits for society: the equalities sector.

As people working in the private sector - the real economy - knows, hundreds of millions of pounds are wasted on having to comply with equalities regulations, and millions more are spent on funding equalities professionals - unproductive individuals. The Treasury ought to see cutting down on this pernicious aspect of the Whitehall establishment as a priority, not just to save money on those employed to collect meaningless data, but to create the conditions necessary for small and medium-sized businesses to power the recovery.

The idea of having an equalities sector is out-dated. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when race relations were considered poor, and legislation like the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and '68 were passed, one could see there was some logic in ensuring government adhered to the principle of racial equality it had legislated for. Race relations improved in the second half of the 1980s and 1990s (when, un-coincidentally, a Conservative immigration existed), but, perversely, the 1980s Labour left saw "diversity", "equality", and other such Guardian buzzwords, as a fundamental part of what Labour should believe in, which led to the expansion of the equalities sector when Labour entered office in 1997.

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20 Sep 2012 12:26:45

The seven government departments David Cameron should scrap at the next reshuffle

By Matthew Barrett
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At the last reshuffle, David Cameron did something quite unusual: he didn't change the name or purpose of any of his government's departments. During the Blair and Brown years, changes like these were rather common. People may remember the poor Department for Constitutional Affairs, or the old Department of Trade and Industry, or its successor, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which lasted for only two years.

At Mr Cameron's next reshuffle, he could consider changing tactic, and start reducing the number of government departments by merging those which have similar purposes. There are obvious spending benefits to be considered - by keeping some staff from one department, but not retaining those whose function is already performed at the newly merged department - and there are also good reasons for Parliament to want to reduce the number of departments. Many backbenchers complain about the over-mighty executive, and the ability it has to undermine backbenchers by appointing minor payroll jobs like Parliamentary Private Secretaries, as well as the obviously necessary Secretaries and Ministers of State. Reducing the number of these jobs would hand more power to Parliament. 

At the very least, there are some anomalous ministerial postings which could easily be dealt with. Why should the Minister with responsibility for Universities, for example, work at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and not Education?

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5 Sep 2012 08:24:50

The tentacles of the Octopus Chancellor are all over this reshuffle

By Paul Goodman
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George Osborne wanted to move Iain Duncan Smith from Work and Pensions, and failed.  Ken Clarke was moved to take up a roving economic brief, thus gaining a licence to meddle in the Chancellor's affairs.  The reshuffle even brought some distressing family news: Lord Howell, Mr Osborne's father in law, has been moved from his Foreign Office job to make way for Sayeeda Warsi.  The Chancellor must steel himself for some lengthy familial exchanges about how difficult the post will be for a tyro.  And David Cameron's transport gambit provoked a blast of the trumpet from Mr Osborne's leadership rival, Boris Johnson.

No wonder the Chancellor was written up as a loser from yesterday's events. But this broad assessment is undermined by the reshuffle's details.  Mr Osborne has been portrayed on this site and elsewhere as the Submarine Chancellor, surfacing only to make carefully controlled interventions before plunging back into the depths of the Treasury.  Something about him clearly attracts marine metaphors, since he can also be imagined as an octopus, with tentacles reaching out to manipulate even the more obscure parts of Westminster and Whitehall.  Yesterday's moves saw them extended even further. Consider:

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18 Aug 2012 17:49:33

What good is a reshuffle without civil service reform?

By Peter Hoskin
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Another in our series of posts preparing for the reshuffle, and I'm afraid it’s the gloomiest so far. Remember how I said earlier that a reshuffle could have an effect on the internal mood of the Coalition? The flipside of that is that I doubt it could accomplish much more. When it comes to actually getting things done, there are reasons to think that a change of personnel will barely make a difference at all.

The first of these reasons is the nature of the Coalition itself. To a greater extent than most governments, its agenda is already settled — that’s what the Coalition Agreement is for. And even if there is room to exploit the gaps in that document, anything meaningful would have to be discussed and hammered out to make sure that it suits both sides of the government. This is draining enough for ministers who have been in their jobs since the beginning and know their way around, let alone for someone who is new to their role. A new minister would find it very difficult to avoid being boxed in by all the existing parameters.

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